Senior Fellow Q&A | Bisa Williams

Bisa Williams

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Senior Fellow

Ambassador Bisa Williams (ret) is co-founder and managing director of Williams Strategy Advisors, LLC (WSA), a problem-solving business and foreign affairs advisory consulting firm. For the last two years, she has also led The Carter Center’s effort as independent observer of implementation of the peace agreement in Mali. Before forming WSA, Williams was a career member of the Foreign Service of the U.S. Department of State. During her more than 30 years in the Foreign Service, she served tours in Guinea (Conakry), Panama, Mauritius, France, the U.S. Mission to the United Nations, Washington, D.C., and Niger. As Acting Deputy Assistant Secretary of State for Western Hemisphere Affairs, Williams led the U.S. delegation to talks in Havana, Cuba, breaking a seven-year hiatus of high-level direct discussions.

She joined us (virtually) for a Q&A in August 2020.

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You completed your BA during the early years of coeducation at Yale. What lessons can our undergraduates learn from the trail-blazing women of that time, thinking about the many challenges our country is facing today?
I didn't think of myself as a trailblazer by going to Yale. We women entering Yale had already been good students in our high schools, valedictorians or president of Student Council or whatever. It was not as if we were doing something totally new or doing something we didn't we knew how to do by going to Yale. We were simply going into a previously all-male environment—and we had already been around those same young men in our high school environment. It might seem odd now, but attending the university in itself didn’t feel like trailblazing to me.

But, when I got to Yale, the friction really came not so much from the university as a learning establishment - but from the social environment. And, I wasn’t prepared for that. So, one of the lessons that I learned is that, as women, we need allies. It's nice if the allies look just like you. But that's not what an ally is. An ally is someone who has your back. So, it doesn't matter if they look like you or not. And that's really important to understand.

I also learned that you need plan A, B, and C in whatever you're doing. I think the greatest lesson from that period in time was that you will encounter obstacles and you will encounter adversaries, people who are trying to thwart you. So, you need to know how to care for yourself, know what you require to be fortified.
Did you always envision a career with the State Department or did you first pursue other career ambitions after college?
I went to graduate school in comparative literature and then taught at Rice University. It was while I was in Houston that I stumbled upon the Foreign Service. I was always interested in comparative cultures, comparative literature, and I started reading about the foreign service. I read George Kennan's books and I was intrigued. I saw an ad in Black Enterprise Magazine and I pursued it, so it was really kind of serendipitous that I ended up in the Foreign Service.
What’s one piece of advice you would give to our graduate students who are considering careers in diplomacy and the Foreign Service?
This is a very challenging time; however, the U.S. needs diplomats. We need people, we need relationships in the world, and the big challenge going forward for our next administration is going to be how to rebuild relationships. When considering diplomacy, some people think about the lofty things: it's adventure, for some, it’s exotic for others. The psychological rewards are great because you're an eyewitness to history. The experience can be very thrilling. There's a great deal of nourishment your soul, your intellect is challenged, inspired. The Foreign Service can also be a very lonely career. It can be difficult to build or stay connected with a “home community.” One needs to be aware of that. There are things you can do to counterbalance the sense of not being connected, but the lifestyle can be a challenge for families or for some young people.

My big message would be that we need good diplomats and diplomats represent the country. Career Foreign Service officers work regardless of the administration. We are building relationships for the good of the American people, for the security of our nation. The diplomats in the latter part of this century are going to have the arduous task of restoring U.S. credibility abroad. But, that's what diplomacy is for. It's definitely a rewarding career and important career and one that never stays boring very long.
What’s the biggest foreign policy challenge for the next U.S. president?
The biggest challenge is going to be restoring American credibility and that's American credibility writ large. We have severely damaged our traditional alliances. Our traditional friends tell us they don’t know how reliable we will be in the future. We have to rebuild that network — and we have to re-think it, expand our alliances. We also have to rebuild our credibility internally.

The U.S. has signaled weird affinities to some very odd and worrisome despots. We have demonstrated a rather cavalier attitude toward the rule of law and toward the notion of equal justice. The apparent assault on human rights and civil liberties through which our country has convulsed the last few years has called into question our own bona fides as a fully democratic nation. We have to get our house in order internally before an American diplomat can effectively propose governing solutions and partnerships abroad. I do think that our biggest challenge will be re-building credibility and it will take aggressive, bold actions to do so.
Tell us more about what students can expect from your Spring 2021 class.
The course is called “Turning Points in Peacebuilding.” As you know, I am involved with the Jimmy Carter Center in a very unique experience. The Carter Center is serving as the Independent Observer of the implementation of the Agreement for Peace and national Reconciliation emanating from the Algiers process, (a peace agreement signed in 2015). This is the very first time in Africa that the idea of having an independent observer to monitor implementation was written into a peace agreement. It is an important affirmation of the importance of accountability. Also unique is the fact that the Carter Center, rather than an African former government official, was asked to take the role. I lead the Carter Center’s efforts as Independent Observer and we have been able impartially to chronicle the Agreement’s successes as well as the impediments to successful fulfillment of the agreement. In June, Mali marked the fifth anniversary of having signed the peace agreement; fighting between the government and rebels has ceased but the rebels are not yet disarmed, a new reconstituted army has not been created, and none of the fundamental political and economic grievances which gave rise to the rebellion has been addressed.

I wanted to take a real-life, it’s-happening-now example and walk through the kinds of issues that have to be considered when the bullets stop and you are faced with the opportunity—and challenge—of building peace. I hope to take the class along through the various things that have to be considered. What are the priorities? How do you do it? Who’s involved?

I will use the ongoing experience in Mali as one anchor and take as another anchor one of my early diplomatic experiences, which was in Panama right after Operation Just Cause. There were still a lot of pieces that needed to be picked up once the dust settled from that experience as well. These are events and complications which you can't necessarily anticipate but, for the foreign affairs practitioner, examining these types of situations can be an important exercise.

Students will study the choices made in the early stages of peace-building and the consequences of those choices. I want the students to start thinking about strategies to use. I think it can be a fun course. I hope it will give a flavor of the future that many of these students are going to be walking into.